MACHIAS, Maine — A gay former prison guard has filed a civil rights discrimination suit against the Maine Department of Corrections after she was fired from her position at Downeast Correctional Facility in Machiasport, where both she and her attorney say “an old boy culture of disrespect for women” is entrenched.
Kristin King of Jonesboro filed her suit in U.S. District Court on May 1, charging that she was disciplined differently than her male counterparts on the job and then fired, all based on her status as a gay woman. She is seeking a jury trial and more than $60,000 in back wages, as well as punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.
King was hired as a correctional officer at Downeast Correctional Facility in September 2004 and worked there for six and a half years. According to the lawsuit, King was the only female and only openly gay officer on the night shift at the minimum security facility, which is currently housing 149 male inmates.
The suit maintains she was singled out for unusually harsh discipline and termination for common clerical errors — specifically over taking counts of inmates — when straight male officers were not disciplined as severely for the same or much more serious deficiencies, including sleeping on the job and allowing inmates to escape. The suit states she also was denied a temporary light duty position needed for medical reasons when straight male corrections officers were routinely granted such an accommodation.
King maintains that by February 2011, she was experiencing debilitating panic and anxiety attacks, along with migraines and insomnia, triggered by the hostile and abusive work environment where she received repeated unfair and discriminatory disciplinary actions against her. King took a short medical leave.
When King attempted to return to work in March 2011, she claims Downeast Correctional Facility ignored her requests, despite doctors’ notes clearing her for work. She was laid off in May and, after a fact-finding hearing by correctional facility officials in September, she was terminated.
King’s attorney, Elizabeth Burnett of Augusta, argued in the lawsuit that corrections officials, rather than treating King like the straight male corrections officers who were allowed to fix their inmate count errors without discipline, copied her logbook errors, and sent them up the chain of command, which triggered a series of disciplinary actions against her.
“Kristin King is another casualty of the deeply entrenched and out-of-date stereotype that women are unfit for corrections and law enforcement positions,” Burnett said late Monday. “There is an old boy culture of disrespect for female corrections officers within the Department of Corrections in general and Downeast Correctional Facility in particular.”
When asked if King’s experience was an isolated incident or part of a larger pattern, Burnett referred to a December 2012 report by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that indicated there had been 45 employment civil rights cases settled by the State of Maine in the last 10 years and that 20 of those 45 — or 44 percent — arose out of the Department of Corrections and Public Safety, costing taxpayers more than $1 million.
“There is a sexist culture within the Department of Corrections,” Burnett said “and at Downeast Correctional Facility, more specifically. Many male corrections officers had made much more serious errors in their employment and were not disciplined so strictly. For example, in addition to the routine logbook errors, male officers had been caught sleeping on the job and had allowed inmates to escape.”
Burnett said that earlier this year the Maine Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued independent notices of King’s right to sue.
The Department of Corrections declined to comment on the accusations. Scott Fish, director of special projects for the department, said, “We simply cannot comment on active lawsuits.” He also declined to discuss the possibility of a pervasive sexist attitude in DOC as he considered it part of the lawsuit.
King, who has requested a jury trial, declined to be interviewed regarding the lawsuit.
“We are confident that a fair minded jury of Kristin’s peers would reach a just decision about whether the supervisory officials and decision-makers within the Maine Department of Corrections violated Kristin’s civil rights,” Burnett said.